There’s a pink neon sign hanging over Darren Hayes‘ shoulder. Opening up a Zoom window from the comfort of his L.A. home, Hayes looks at ease in a denim shirt as the fluorescent letters of the word “homosexual” peek out from just behind him. “It’s good, right?” he offers with a wry look.
It’s an apt emblem for the 50-year-old pop-rock singer — “homosexual” directly references his oft-discussed sexuality, but it also happens to be the title of his first solo album in more than a decade. For a moment, Hayes’s calm demeanor drops. “The panic’s just starting to settle in now,” he says. “I would never recommend taking 10 years away from music, and then deciding to launch a new album and moving house in the same month.”
On first listen, Homosexual (out Friday through Powdered Sugar Productions) sounds like an ecstatic nostalgia trip — diving into early-2000s dance-pop with wild abandon, Hayes sounds like a man pursuing escapism in its purest, queerest form. But he reveals that the album is not just about evading our modern state of affairs; it’s about rewriting the past.
“Well, here comes another sad thing,” he says with a sigh. “The nostalgia comes from the fact that I was healing from trauma. What I was trying to do with this record was revisit some old wounds, and re-imagine them so that they could be mine again.”
Hayes wastes no time in making crystal clear what those wounds are — at the height of his popularity in the late ’90s and early aughts as one-half of the chart-topping duo Savage Garden, the Australian star was stuck in the closet. Unable to express himself freely and fighting off pressure from “men in suits” surrounding him, Hayes says the early years of his career were defined by shame.
He’s quick to point out that, at least in Savage Garden, there was more room for him to experiment with identity thanks to the marketability of boy bands at the turn of the century. “It felt weirdly okay, because I was contrasted with my opposite, Daniel [Jones],” he explains. “He was this beautiful, blonde, tall, cisgender, heterosexual man. And they called me the ‘exotic’ one. We were in a culture where they liked that there was ‘something for everyone.’ I appealed to a certain type of audience, and that was okay.”
But even within that role, Hayes was still met with strict confines. While he was still in a stage of questioning his sexuality, he says his labels (Roadshow in Australia and Columbia in the U.S.), managers and creative teams were all working to make sure he presented the “right” image to the world.
In filming the music video for the band’s 1997 hit “I Want You,” for example, Hayes says he had been placed in an optometry contraption specifically to limit his movement. “It was presented to me as, ‘Hey we have this really cool piece of sci-fi structure, and we’re gonna put your head in this device,'” he says. “Those were really directives that came from above, and it was so that I wouldn’t look too feminine. … It’s heartbreaking to know that, even back then, when I felt like I was free, I wasn’t.”
After a few years of major success — which spawned a pair of No. 1 singles on the Hot 100, two top 10 albums on the Billboard 200 and two globe-spanning tours — the duo ultimately split up in October 2001. Public speculation quickly unfurled, spurned on by comments from Jones claiming that the band had broken up without his knowledge. Hayes has since said that he was not the one who decided to leave the group, Jones was; he had grown wary of fame and didn’t want to continue on in the spotlight.
“The band ended without my will, without my permission, and then I was blamed for the end of the band,” Hayes says, slowly growing more exasperated. “I’ve spent so long under this false narrative that that was somehow my fault when it wasn’t. I felt really screwed over by that.”
Striking out on his own, Hayes watched as the homophobia from his team went from being “secretive and intentionally kept from me” to being much more overt “horrors.” The debut music video of his new solo project, “Insatiable,” proved to be the initial instance where Hayes finally saw what was happening.
“They secretly cast a female, and filmed her on the days that I wasn’t on set,” he says. “They created a narrative in the edit where this woman was looking for me in a club. When I saw the edit put together, I was just horrified, because I was never trying to portray myself as a straight man.”
What followed was what Hayes describes as a series of “whispers” within his label that he says led to the halt of his once-burgeoning solo career. “What I know is I went from one day being a huge priority at the label, to the next day having all of my U.S. press canceled, and my entire debut album [2002’s Spin] launched as a small meet-and-greet,” he explains. Spin went on to perform well in the UK, but peaked at a mere No. 35 on the Billboard 200.
Hayes would go on to release one more album with Columbia and two more as an independent artist, coming out publicly in 2006 after splitting from his major label and marrying his now-husband, Richard Cullen. Looking back on the experience is hard for Hayes even now, especially since no one from his early career is interested in taking responsibility for their actions.
“I had an ex-manager tell me recently, ‘Nobody at the label had a problem that you were gay — it was just how that would affect your career commercially. That was their problem, not the fact that you’re gay,'” he recalls, grimacing. “And I was just thinking, could you imagine if you substituted my sexuality for race, or for ableism, or for any other aspect of difference a person could have? You would never get away with that.”
In the 11 years following his last album, 2011’s Secret Codes and Battleships, the singer says he’s felt proud to watch artists like Lil Nas X, Kehlani, Troye Sivan and more thrive in the music biz without hiding their sexuality. But he also is quick to point out that their mere existence in the industry does not solve all of its problems.
“When you’re a queer artist, it’s as though you are somehow niche. And there is this unspoken quota that exists, like, ‘Well, we have our one gay person already,'” he explains. He points to the 2022 VMAs, in which Lil Nas X and Jack Harlow won the award for best collaboration; taking to the stage, presenters Offset and DJ Khaled gave Harlow hugs, only to give Lil Nas fist bumps. “Whether it was intended or not, I felt that. I felt like that little queer kid and someone didn’t know how to react around me — I felt that weird rejection. And he was the person winning the award!”
It wasn’t until 2018 that Hayes finally felt inspired to get back into the studio — after watching Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name at a local cinema, the singer left “in tears,” feeling “thrilled” at the prospect of writing new music. What came out, he says, was a magnum opus, examining his life as a gay, middle-aged former pop star.
“I realized I had a sense of grief about a joy that I had never felt about my sexuality,” he explains. “At the height of my fame, there was a sadness behind my eyes that the rest of the world really didn’t know about. Yet, in my private life, I’ve been married for 17 years, I’m probably the most comfortable I’ve ever been in my sexuality.”
One part of the creative process that proved to be brand new for Hayes was his DIY approach: he written, produced, mixed and performed every song on the new album. “I just felt like the one thing I had never done was really just do it all myself, so I did it,” he says. “There was an excitement in making what was essentially my Faith, where every single sound, every movement, every blip and bloop and synth line and lyric was me.”
There’s also the title of the new record. While the word “homosexual” has a history of being used as a clinical pejorative to belittle and isolate gay people, Hayes wanted to reclaim it for himself. “For me, it was about saying that I wasn’t ashamed anymore. I’m not afraid to have a neon sign of it right behind me,” he says. “I’m here saying, ‘I’m gonna make you say this word.’ Because if you have a reaction to saying the title of my record, then that means you probably have a problem with us.”
The lyrics throughout Homosexual are tinged with the kind of dark musings Hayes offers up throughout his Billboard interview. “Poison Blood” contends with his family’s history with depression, while “All You Pretty Things” offers a tribute to the 49 lives taken during the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016. But the production of the album offers nothing short of euphoria — harmonious synths, chunky piano chords, glittering guitars and thundering beats urge the listener to dance in spite of the album’s heavier themes.
For Hayes, the album is about “scoring my memories with happier images,” and plunging back into a more “innocent” time — he posits some time before September 11, 2001 — to live the joy he wishes he got to feel then. “This album, I think, exists in a parallel universe just before a lot of really awful things happened,” he says.
As for his future, Hayes finally feels unlimited — he’s heading out on his first North American tour in years, after which he plans to get back in the studio and continue making the kind of music that finally makes him happiest. “This was just me breaking the dam,” he says of Homosexual. “I’m just very excited to be back.”